By Logan Hendrix
The Virginia House of Delegates is expected to pass several bills aimed at overhauling the state’s mental health care system. One major reform is an extension of the amount of time a potential mental health patient can be held in emergency custody.
The Senate unanimously passed a bill on Feb. 10 that includes several changes to state procedures in handling emergency mental health situations. In the House, the bill was divided into separate bills that are still under consideration.
The original Senate bill was proposed by Sen. Creigh Deeds of the 25th District, which includes Rockbridge County. In November, Deeds was stabbed multiple times by his 24-year-old son, Gus, who then took his own life. Gus Deeds had reportedly been held in emergency custody for mental illness and released the day before attacking his father.
The current Virginia emergency custody order procedures allow law enforcement officials to hold people who are considered to be dangerous to themselves or others and unwilling or unable to volunteer for treatment for a maximum of six hours.
In those six hours, the local Community Services Board, which operates under the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, has to locate an available psychiatric bed for the patient. If the board is unable to do so, the person is released
In November, the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board could not find a psychiatric bed for Gus Deeds, and he was released without being admitted to a hospital or psychiatric facility.
Creigh Deeds’ bill would extend the custody time limit to 24 hours.
The Rockbridge area board’s executive director Dennis Cropper said 12 people in Rockbridge County were placed under emergency custody orders in December.
Cropper said increasing the time limit for emergency custody alone will not fix the problem of having to release people who need help.
Deeds’ bill would also require state hospitals to provide psychiatric beds to people in need if a private psychiatric bed cannot be found, as well as to establish an online psychiatric bed registry to help find beds more efficiently throughout the state. The online registry is already being developed.
The bill passed by the Senate extends the custody time limit to 24 hours. But the House has proposed changing the limit to eight hours.
Cropper said there will be a greater cost to police departments if the bill passes, regardless of the extension of custody time.
“The reforms will give pre-screeners more time to find a bed, but on the downside, from the sheriff’s point of view, they’ve got to stick around to keep this person in custody for an additional two hours or 18 hours,” he said.
If each chamber of the legislature insists on its own version of the bill and can’t agree on a custody time limit, representatives from the Senate and the House will have to work out a compromise.
Virginia Delegate Ben Cline of the 24th District, which includes Rockbridge County, said “the next step is to reconcile the differences from each chamber through a conference committee.”
For past Rockbridge Report coverage:
For more information on mental health care procedures and reform in Virginia since 2008, see the attorney general’s January 2013 report.